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The Family Tree Hardcover – December 29, 2004


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The ease with which British journalist Cadwalladr spins three generational tales in her debut is outdone only by the grace and wit with which she delivers each one. Set in late–20th-century Britain, the novel is narrated by Rebecca Monroe, a pop culture researcher who tells of her marriage to Alistair, a behavioral geneticist; her childhood leading up to her mother's suicide; and her grandmother's doomed biracial romance with Cecil, a Jamaican immigrant. In an effort to better understand herself, the child she can't decide whether or not to have, and the people she still can't believe make up her family, Rebecca considers both sides of the nature/nurture debate, with any romantic notions she might be on the brink of reaching debunked by her husband's passionless scientific postulations. Cadwalladr explicates her tale with a slew of definitions, scientific charts and graphs, detailed family anatomies, examples of deductive fallacies and footnotes expounding on such essential '70s pop culture references as Dallas and The Sale of the Century. Her mastery of time and place, wry humor and sporadic bouts of self-doubt will endear her to readers, while her fascination with the choices people make combined with a morbid curiosity about her own fate add depth and texture to this utterly winning tale of one lovable, dysfunctional family.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–While working on her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies, Rebecca Monroe, the wry narrator and central character in this engrossing debut novel, grapples with the nature versus nurture debate. Her husband is a behavioral geneticist who is certain he knows the answer–it's in the genes. But as Rebecca explores her grandparents' relationship, her findings take off in surprising directions. She interweaves the stories of three generations of her relatives from the 1940s, the 1970s, and the present to show a bleakly funny, unsentimental view of an English family unraveling and then coming together. Rebecca gives insight into her childhood by sprinkling her story with cultural references such as the TV series Dallas and Charlie's Angels, explaining them with hilarious footnotes. She uses charts and graphs to show aspects of genetics and kinship, giving a sense of order and tidiness to the unreliable and sometimes messy world of human relations. The novel is well paced and the story is compelling, with vivid characters, especially the women. The author makes sense of the tangled ties among the generations and navigates them with humor and compassion, as she does the themes of racism, mental illness, marriage, and, of course, nature versus nurture.–Susanne Bardelson, Kitsap Regional Library, WA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton Adult; First Edition edition (December 29, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0525948422
  • ISBN-13: 978-0525948421
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.9 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,946,426 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

I wanted to be shocked about what was really going on.
Book Lover
It's really refreshing to read a book where the story is interesting, the characters are fully developed and both the writing style is fun and quirky.
LA Girl
I look forward to Cadwalladr's next book as eagerly as I anticipate future offerings from Atkinson, Trapido, and Mankell.
K. L. Cotugno

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By K. L. Cotugno VINE VOICE on March 10, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Ever since reading Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I have been hoping to find a writer to match Kate Atkinson. Some have come very close (Barbara Trapido, Hillary Mankell, Tom Perrotta). Now comes Carole Cadwalladr. She performs that most delicate of juggling acts -- keeping at least three stories spinning along, with each generation, each decade being presented in all its silliness. As one reviewer pointed out, it helps to have lived in all the times depicted, which is one of the reasons why I can relate to the story so strongly. I look forward to Cadwalladr's next book as eagerly as I anticipate future offerings from Atkinson, Trapido, and Mankell.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Maisie Miller on January 10, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The Family Tree is that rare book: a novel that moves you, makes you laugh, forces you to read on (I stayed up until 3am as I just couldn't put it down), and stays with you long after you've finished the final page.

It's so unusual to come across a book that is not only so humorous (the depiction of the wilder shores of 1970s suburbia is hilarious), but also so intelligent. The Family Tree raises all sorts of questions about family, class, sex, relationships, race, genes, popular culture...yet it never feels forced or artificial. By plotting three generations of the same family, these questions occur naturally: how much of who we are is determined by our genes? By our upbringing? By the TV we watched? By our memories?

At the heart of the book is the question of nature versus nurture. Rebecca Monroe, the central character, has two strikes against her: naturewise, she's possibly inherited her mother's unstable genes; nurturewise, she is haunted by the guilty knowledge that she was in some way responsible for the breakdown of her family.

As a graduate student studying popular culture, she relates incidents from her 70s childhood (the child's eye view of her parent's marriage is only ever half right), weighing up too, the impact of Dallas, Love Story and Charlie's Angels. She tries to understand not only her personal history but also how the age in which she grew up has influenced and affected her (furtively reading her feminist aunt's copy of The Joy of Sex and trying to imitate Lady Diana's hairstyle, for example). Her husband, on the other hand, a geneticist, believes that personality is simply a by-product of our DNA.

It's a great and satisfying read that defies categorisation.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By N. Larrabee on February 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The unique manner in which this book is format is distinctive yet sometimes confusing. Rebecca is writing her thesis for her postdoctoral degree on the influences of television on families in the 1970s. Amidst the flashbacks to her childhood, when Rebecca inserts her husband Alistair's scientific opinions about one's DNA it drags down the well-told story. Every time Alistair appears you question why did she marry him? Rebecca's childhood habit of reading the dictionary comes into play at the start of every chapter. The whimsical inserts of words and their definitions are distracting at times. Family tree is the story of three generations of women and the men they married and the ones they loved. The national fervor for the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana pushes the Arnold household into a crazed frenzy and to the brink. It is heartwarming to see the love between generations, and it is easy to be empathetic to those with broken relationships. An inimitable story told in a way that you have to catch your breath when you have finished.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Gail Cooke HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 6, 2005
Format: Audio CD
At times it can seem that we're awash in stories dealing in introspection, with characters digging into the past in order to come to terms with the present. While, quite broadly, that is the focus of this estimable debut novel, The Family Tree is far above the ordinary. Ms. Cadwalladr, a British journalist, has fashioned a story rich in perception, tinged with comedy, and flawlessly delivered.

That's quite an order for a voice performer to fulfill but dancer/actress Josephine Bailey is more than up to the task. Born in London, her reading is assertive yet also conveys the vulnerability found in narrator Rebecca Moore.

Weaving together the stories of three generations allows Rebecca to explore her past in an effort to find out precisely who she is and what she's about. She is, most certainly afraid of being like her mother who took her own life. Rebecca wants to know why her mother did this. For her husband, Alistair, it's simply a matter of genetics. He can find an explanation for human behavior in science.

Rebecca isn't at all willing to accept that, dismissing it as too facile. What about free choice? And, what about her marriage when it is discovered that there are very basic disagreements between them?

The Family Tree is an intriguing story, and the introduction of a worthy new writing talent.

- Gail Cooke
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on April 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This lively, finely constructed debut looks for destiny in the nature (genes) and nurture (everything else) of family history. For Rebecca Monroe, a specialist in pop culture, the daily tenor of British life in her late 1970's childhood can be measured and dated by television, while family parties - the elaborate kind which involve days of cooking and a frenzy of cleaning - mark seminal events, which tend to be catastrophic.

The first of these was Christmas 1942 when the hostess' wartime chocolateless chocolate cake was trumped by her sister's real, honest-to-god trifle. "There was silence. And then the unmistakable sound of a silver spoon plunging into a combination of sponge and custard and real cream. They all visualized the action before they turned their heads and saw Alicia Cragley, twelve years old, with skin that was whiter than snow and lips that were redder than blood." Alicia was Rebecca's grandmother and it was at this moment that Herbert, her first cousin, determined to marry her.

The second of these is a celebration of Prince Charles' 1981 wedding to Diana, put on by Rebecca's mother, Doreen, which ends with her death.

Rebecca, slowly suffocating in marriage to Alistair, a behavioral geneticist who has enrolled her in one of his academic experiments because of her grandparents' blood relationship and her mother's instability, wants a child. But Alistair, increasingly remote, refuses.

Is it that he doesn't want a child, she wonders, or that he doesn't want her child? Pondering this question, she looks for signs of nature and nurture in the events of her childhood, dwelling particularly on the two years before her mother's death, and ranging back to explore the years between those two fateful parties.
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